When I was 10 years old, a local monument called the Mill Mountain Star (now the Roanoke Star), a neon construction perched high on a mountain top above Roanoke City, turned red at night when someone died in a traffic fatality.
I am not sure how long this lasted. The star was built in 1949 as an advertising gimmick for local merchants, who built this large neon tubing that is billed as the world's largest man-made star in hopes of drawing in holiday shoppers. The star can be seen for 60 miles and sits 1,045 feet above the city.
For me, the star has always been there. I remember driving home nights with my mother and looking to see what color it was. I would be sad if it were red and remind my mother to drive safely. That, I think, was the real message of the change of color - a reminder that poor driving skills (including drunk driving), kills.
The city stopped that practice in 1976 (I would have been 13) and turned the star red, white, and blue for the nation's bicentennial. It has stayed that way for the most part, except for September 12, 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, when it changed to red, and then it changed to all white in April 2007 after 33 people died in a shooting at Virginia Tech, which is nearby. The white color was to symbolize hope.
Prince (the musician) died last week. Cities turned monuments purple. I do not think our star turned purple. At least, I hope not. I liked Prince as well as most people, more, actually, than my husband, at least, but not enough to feel great grief at his passing. I'm sorry he died and I think 57 is young - that's my husband's age. But I did not cry over him. On TV last night, a young woman said she had cried for two days because Prince had died. And she had never even met him.
Roadside memorials spring up overnight when people are killed in car wrecks, visible reminders that someone died in this curve or on this straight-a-way.
Mass outpourings of grief over people we have never known indicate to me that we have something wrong with our mourning process as a society. I am not immune - I have cried when famous people died. Heck, I have cried when fictional characters in books or movies died. But only for a moment. Only when I hear the news, maybe, depending on my frame of mind.
But I do not mourn these people the way I mourn the loss of a relative or close friend. People I love receive my respect and my grief when they pass on, as they should.
I do not believe that when celebrities die, monuments should turn a color. Yes, perhaps, they are "national treasures" of a sort, but Meryl Haggard, Prince, and a member of some team in the NFL do not deserve week-long mentions on cable TV.
People die every day. Good people. Young people who have not lived their lives yet. Old people who lived solid, decent lives and contributed greatly to our society, whose roles go unnoticed.
Did we turn monuments a color when all of those children were killed at Sandy Hook? Eleven people have been shot in the last several days, in episodes that made the news - will we turn the Brooklyn Bridge a mournful color to honor those lives? And what about the ones not reported, the multiple deaths every hour? How can we put one life above another? Isn't there something wrong with that?
My mother taught me we all put our pants on the same way; we all go the bathroom, we are all equal when standing naked in front of a mirror (regardless of how beautiful). Of course honors should go to those who deserve them, but I do not put celebrities in that league. Presidents, prime ministers, Ghandi, and Mandela, perhaps. Even then, we are honoring the role of office as much, if not more, than the person.
Hollywood stars and other artists? They are not the same.
My uncle passed away yesterday. He will have small service and perhaps no mention at all in the newspaper because he was 80 years old and he and his wife lived on Social Security. He lived in California, a world away from me, and I did not know him well. However, he served in the Armed Forces, he raised children, and for the last 20 years he has cared for his mother, who at 96 is still alive and has outlived all of her children but my father. My father and brother, my aunt and my cousins will attend his funeral, if there is a funeral at all. I'm not even sure there will be a grave marker, though I hope so.
No one will turn a monument purple or green or any color in his name, just as if I died today, no one would turn a monument any color for me.
We idolize too much and too many. I am not Biblical as a rule, but I do believe there are cautions against idols in that sacred tome, and for good reason. When we begin to set others above us, for whatever reason, we create problems. We create inequality, all by ourselves, without any help from the government or any other institution. Religions, alas, have fed into this need for idols by setting up their own versions of "higher callers," those who preach on TV or create universities and Moral Majority groups in hopes of making the U.S. a theocracy instead of the republic she is. The very group that should be speaking against idolatry has turned it into a profitable business.
It is okay to love an author or a musician, and to feel sad when that person passes on. It is fine to remember him, to play the music or read the book, or watch the movie or the great NFL play. But I think that should be done on a personal, not national, level. If you want to get together with friends and play Purple Rain for hours on end, have at it.
We should remember, though, that these people are humans. They simply chose a different and more visible path. Their deaths should remind us that we are all mortal. It doesn't mean we should mourn like it's 1999, and when the clock rolls over to 2000, we're all going to die.